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Snyder missed chance to get in front of Flint water mistakes

Jack Lessenberry

Flash back to Friday, June 24, 1972. President Richard Nixon goes on national television to apologize to the nation for the break-in and attempted bugging at the Democratic National Headquarters a week before.

“I had no knowledge of this in advance, and am totally appalled that people working for me would do such a thing,” he said. 

“Nevertheless, I take full responsibility, and apologize to the nation. I have accepted the resignation of the head of my campaign, and am appointing an ethics officer to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Because America has got to know its government has integrity.”

That never happened, of course. Within a week after Watergate, Nixon was already deep in plotting the cover-up that would eventually destroy him. Had Nixon actually given the fantasy speech I just made up, few would now remember it.

There would have been grumbling for a few days, but before long two scruffy unknown reporters named Woodward and Bernstein would have been back covering Virginia zoning stories. Richard Nixon would have served eight years, and history would have been different.

Every politician knows deep down that it isn’t the mistake, but the cover-up that gets you – but yet, they still do it …which brings us to Governor Rick Snyder and the Flint water mess. Now, I am not suggesting that the governor is anything like the scheming, paranoid Nixon.

But his administration, and at least one emergency manager he appointed, made a horrible mistake in switching to Flint River water without corrosion controls to save money. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality later stonewalled, arrogantly dismissed reporters’ concerns, and may have doctored data to try and hide that people were being subjected to lead poisoning.

Nevertheless, it took months before Snyder fired his head of the DEQ. By that time, outrage had gone national. Aging pop singer Cher, of all people, appeared to suggest Snyder face a firing squad.

Filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore said the governor should be just sent to prison. Finally, Hillary Clinton said the people of Flint deserve to know what the governor knew and when he knew it.

Well, two days ago the governor finally responded … by naming a bizarre, unwieldy, 17-member ‘Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee.’

When I told one Flint resident about that, he responded with one long drawn-out word, which I cannot say on the air. Governor Snyder has had numerous chances to get out ahead of this crisis, take relentless positive proactive action – and he hasn’t done so.

Had he moved swiftly and dramatically in October, when it became clear beyond doubt there was lead in the drinking water, he might have been able to get on top of this. But he didn’t, and the agony of Flint seems likely to haunt the last three years of his administration.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a young black drug user named Malice Green was beaten to death by two policemen. Detroit’s mayor quickly moved to compensate his relatives.

When I asked why, he said,

“I didn’t want to take back the damn riot championship of the world.”

Governor Snyder hesitated. Now, it remains to be seen whether his chance of avoiding being forever defined by Flint has been forever lost..

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.